[Fiction Issue] ‘No one had told him that the monsters had long since come out of the shadows’—Read an excerpt from Sebastian Murdoch’s work in progress

The JRB presents an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Strange Vibrations, by Sebastian Murdoch.

An hour later, Billy was back on the same corner, his jeans feeling a little tighter than before, if that were possible. He hadn’t gotten to come—the asshole hadn’t let him—and that refusal seemed to arouse the man further. He’d grabbed Billy by the throat and squeezed until Billy started to actually fear that he might pass out. But then the man’s back straightened as if a rod had been shoved in along his spine. He jerked, shuddered, then groaned long and low. When he pulled out, Billy felt another small part of himself go with him. That had been happening more and more lately, that sensation of pieces of him slipping away in these moments of lust and desperation. Sometimes it was his lust instead, but more often than not, it was this: a man with a bland, nondescript face and a particular inclination pressing first against and then into him, over and over, until it was done. Then, Billy, lying sometimes naked, sometimes only half-dressed on a dirty mattress or the backseat of a car. 

Or, in one memorable instance, the floor of a fancy art gallery.

That was a night he sometimes thought about while a different man was thrusting away inside of him. Flashes of memory came to him like headlights glimpsed only in passing, their light appearing through a gap in the curtains before disappearing down the street.

He’d only been at it for a few weeks when the golden-haired man approached him on the street and asked if Billy would take a walk with him.

‘A walk?’ Billy asked. He was young, but he wasn’t stupid. This sounded like a trick. Maybe this guy was a cop, one of those undercover ones he’d heard the women on the street warn each other about. But this man looked far too young to be a cop, closer to Billy’s age, and too feminine besides that. His hair hung in flaxen waves across his forehead and around his temples, giving him the look of a figure from a painting come to life. He had full lips that stood out against his pale skin as if someone had set two rose petals where his mouth ought to be. Billy wanted to bite them.

The stranger smiled a little, ducked his head some to look at Billy from beneath the curtain of his hair. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘A walk. For now.’ He turned to start walking back the way he’d come, only to pause and glance at Billy over his shoulder. ‘Coming?’

Against his better judgment, Billy followed. He could have justified his decision any number of ways, but it wasn’t like donating to charity or giving a hitchhiker a lift—the reason didn’t matter in this case. All that mattered was that now he was going somewhere, and that he was going there of his own volition. He jogged a little to catch up to the man, and then they were walking side by side down the street.

After a minute of walking in silence, the stranger said, ‘My name is Elliot, by the way. Elliot Pearson.’ He stuck his hand out for Billy to shake. 

Billy stared at his hand, then at his face. ‘So,’ he said, ‘which one is fake?’

Elliot furrowed his brow in confusion. 

‘The first name or the last? Most guys who want to … walk with me don’t use their real names.’ That fact hadn’t been laid out for him explicitly, but he’d put two and two together after the third ‘John Smith’ in a row. Some didn’t even offer a made-up name, preferring to stick to simple commands and requests. Time was money, after all. 

Elliot was silent for a moment. Then, he leaned forward conspiratorially and said, ‘Neither.’ He smiled, and the sight of it sent a flash of warmth across Billy’s chest and up his neck. 

‘Okay then, Elliot Pearson,’ he said. ‘Where are we going?’ As they’d been walking, the landscape around them had shifted and changed from the sparsely populated streets Billy frequented to the bustling San Francisco downtown area. The boards disappeared from storefront windows, replaced by mannequins dressed in rich fabrics and dazzling splashes of color. The people, too, had changed. Billy found himself having to weave around smartly dressed couples and clean cut businessmen as they hustled down the street to their secret destinations. Occasionally, a passing stranger’s eyes would light on Billy’s clothes, his greasy face, before slipping past him like he was nothing more significant than one of the advertisements in the windows. The anger in him growled low, a warning. 

Elliot knocked his shoulder against Billy’s, drawing his attention back to him. ‘This way,’ he said, and the pair turned down a side street, the babble of the evening’s crowd fading behind them. They went down an alleyway and came to a heavy, steel door set into the brick of one of the buildings surrounding them. Elliot pulled out a set of keys and opened the door, gesturing for Billy to go ahead of him. ‘Come on,’ he said when Billy did not move straight away. 

Finally, Billy stepped inside the building, which was dark and quiet. Elliot came in behind him and shut the door, locking it. At the sound of the lock sliding home, Billy spun around. While he didn’t think this man wanted to hurt him, he still didn’t like the idea of being locked in somewhere unfamiliar to him. Not when Elliot had the only key. 

Elliot must have recognized the fear in him, because, even in the darkness, Billy could see the glimmer of his smile. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, his voice soft, ‘you’re safe here,’ his hand on Billy’s wrist, not forceful but firm, steady even in the dark. Elliot laced their fingers together and led Billy deeper into the room. Finally, they stopped walking, and the room came into focus as light partially filled the space. Elliot stood beside a desk, his hand touching a small lamp near the edge. The lamp was one of those reading lights, the bulb covered by a rounded, green glass shade that colored the light, turning it the same hue as the sea glass Billy found on the beach on the occasions he ventured out of the city. 

It took him a moment to register the rest of the room, and when he did he found himself even more confused than he had been when Elliot first approached him. They stood in a room filled with objects of different shapes, each standing concealed by tarps and sheets. The floor, too, was covered with what looked to be bed sheets stained with paint in various places. The room smelled strongly of turpentine.

‘What is this place?’ Billy asked, turning in a small circle. Where he stood, the sheets did not reach, and so his footsteps echoed on the cold, concrete floor. Distant was the noise of the city, the sound of the passing cars reduced to a whispering.

‘It’s an art gallery,’ Elliot said. He had his hands in his pockets and was leaning against the edge of the desk, watching Billy take in the space. ‘I work here.’

Billy looked at him and tried not to show how impressed he was. ‘I don’t see any art,’ he said. 

Elliot laughed a little, then pushed away from the desk and walked over to one of the shrouded objects in the center of the room. He drew back its sheet, letting the fabric flutter to the floor, and stepped aside for Billy to see. 

What stood before him was a tall easel, upon which sat a medium-sized canvas coated in layers and layers of paint, the layers so thick that they rose up off the canvas, practically begging Billy to touch them. He kept his hands to himself though and merely stared at the painting, at its faceless figures sitting frozen in what might have been a café or might have been someone’s living room. He couldn’t tell with the room’s light so dim around him, but he didn’t think it much mattered where the figures were stationed. To him, the only thing that seemed to matter about the piece was that they had been captured in some fleeting moment of repose, their details stripped away or else not yet layered onto the image before him. He hoped that whoever the painter was, that they wouldn’t give them faces. He imagined that it must be infinitely more restful for the figures to go throughout their days without worrying about what their faces said or didn’t say to the other faces around them. 

After a minute, he asked, ‘Who did this?’ He hadn’t meant for his voice to come out so hushed, so in awe, and the genuine earnestness of it embarrassed him. Then again, he wasn’t sure what he was so embarrassed about.

‘One of the Bay’s rising artists,’ Elliot said, his tone equally reverent. ‘You can really see the influence of Magritte in her work, can’t you?’

Billy didn’t know who Magritte was or what influences he was supposed to be seeing in the painting in front of him, and that realization made him acutely aware of the gap between him and this golden-haired man beside him. They were from two different worlds. This little adventure of Elliot’s was just that: a quick trip to the other side of the tracks. He could come and go as he pleased and never have to worry about how his night would end. Billy didn’t have that luxury. And that understanding riled the anger in his chest. In the dark, he imagined his eyes shining like those of a tiger’s, suddenly woken from slumber.

But instead of releasing the rage building inside him, he turned to leave. 

‘Wait,’ Elliot said, reaching for him. Then, he saw the expression on Billy’s face and paused, hand extended toward Billy’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. I was trying to impress you.’

Billy eyed him, but he didn’t try to leave again. 

‘Here,’ Elliot said, and he walked back to the desk. On the desk sat a small radio, and Elliot switched it on. He scanned the channels until he found one playing that song ‘It’s Now or Never’ by Elvis Presley. The song was from a couple years back, but it was still getting decent play on the radio, and the crooning chords drifted into the air. Elliot turned back to Billy and held out his hand. 

When Billy only stared at him, he said, ‘Come on. Dance with me.’

‘What do you want from me?’ Billy asked.

Elliot’s gaze softened around the eyes, but pity wasn’t quite the name for whatever expression now sailed across his features. ‘A dance,’ he said, and he offered up his hand again.

So, Billy let Elliot guide him into a slow dance, their chests pressed against each other, Elliot’s left hand on the small of Billy’s back. Elliot’s breath smelled of spearmint, and his right palm was soft and smooth against Billy’s left, where it was cupped like a small bird between their bodies. Billy looked up into Elliot’s eyes. 

‘What do you want from me?’ he asked again.

‘A kiss,’ Elliot said, and so they did. Lips tender and searching in the half dark. Elliot’s hand pressing harder on Billy’s back. When the kiss ended, Billy could hear their heavy, quickened breathing, could feel the sweat slicking his palms. 

Again, he asked, ‘What do you want from me?’

‘Your touch,’ Elliot said.

They undressed each other slowly, more slowly than Billy would have liked, but eventually they were naked in front of each other. Billy went to kneel on the hard floor at Elliot’s feet, as he’d expected the other man to command, but Elliot’s hand on his shoulder stayed him. It was Elliot, then, who went down on his knees. Elliot, who, gazing up at Billy as if he were one of the works of art the gallery purveyed in, took him into his mouth, at first soft and then hard. 

Billy didn’t know what to do with himself. He had yet to be on the receiving end in these matters, and the sheer force of his arousal threatened to overwhelm him at the start. Breathing through his nose, he shut his eyes and tried to hold off the pleasure mounting inside him. 

Elliot’s mouth disappeared. Cold air pebbled his skin. 

‘Hey,’ Elliot said, hands on Billy’s thighs. 

He looked at him. 

That same grin from before, rosy lips splitting open. ‘Don’t hold back,’ Elliot said. Then, he had Billy back in his mouth, and he was working him hard and fast.

Billy put his hands in Elliot’s hair and gripped those golden curls by the root. When he did this, Elliot groaned, and the vibration hummed down Billy’s dick. That alone was enough to nearly push him over the edge. 

A moan forced its way out between Billy’s teeth. ‘What do you want from me?’ he asked, and this time it felt like he wasn’t just asking Elliot, but God or some other higher power he didn’t know the name of yet. 

Elliot answered, breathlessly, ‘You. All of you.’

Something inside him tightened. Then, in one quick jerk, it released, and he was tumbling over the edge into a pleasure he hadn’t known until that moment. His cries reverberated in the empty space, dozens of himself calling back to him while he spilled out into Elliot’s eager, waiting mouth. When his mind had finally cleared enough for him to think, he realized there were tears prickling the corners of his eyes. While Elliot swallowed, Billy surreptitiously wiped his eyes. 

Billy’s legs were shaking so hard he could barely stand up straight. Elliot gently pulled him to sit down beside him on one of the sheets on the floor. They lay down side by side, and Elliot curled his body around Billy’s like a comma. He stroked Billy’s sweaty hair.

‘Why did you do that?’ Billy asked. 

‘Would you rather I had not?’ The question sounded genuine, but then, Billy couldn’t see Elliot’s face to know whether or not he was mocking him. 

‘I’m not used to it is all. Most guys like it the other way around.’ Elliot had one of his arms draped over Billy’s side, and now Billy held his hand, turning it this way and that so he could examine it. Elliot had a small trio of freckles between his thumb and forefinger. Billy thought about kissing them but held back.

‘Most guys,’ Elliot said with a sigh. ‘Do I seem like most guys to you?’ He nuzzled the back of Billy’s neck, nipped the vulnerable flesh at the base of his hairline. 

Billy said nothing, only shook his head.

‘Good,’ Elliot said. He drew one of the sheets over the pair of them. ‘I know it’s not the Fairmont,’ he said, ‘but hopefully it’ll be okay for a minute or two.’

‘I guess I can make it work,’ Billy said. When he felt Elliot’s laugh through his shoulders, he smiled. Together, the two drifted off to sleep.

They were woken by bright lights and shouting fit to rattle the building’s rafters.

Someone had glimpsed the light coming from the back of the gallery through the front windows and called the owner, who lived down the block. The owner, in turn, called the police for backup, thinking there had been a burglary. This was why neither Elliot nor Billy heard the cops enter the building; the gallery owner had used her key. They had been fast asleep until the police fell upon them with fists and batons.

They dragged Billy off the floor. He barely had the time or wherewithal to clutch the paint-splattered bed sheet to his naked body. They flung him aside, and Billy watched as they forced Elliot onto his belly, pummeling him. Billy would not learn until later that Elliot had a history with the police, that he did not actually work at the art gallery, that he had stolen and copied the owner’s key weeks ago. Maybe that was why the police, for the most part, seemed to ignore Billy’s presence in that moment. 

Between the flurry of fists and boots, Elliot caught Billy’s eyes. His bottom lip had been split on one of the cop’s batons, and blood streamed down his chin and onto the sheet beneath him. He didn’t fight them at first. He gazed up at Billy and mouthed the word ‘Go.’ Then, he began thrashing on the floor, giving the police a real run for their money. Giving Billy time to escape.

Billy turned, snatching up his clothes and the key, and ran to the side door. He managed to get it open and stumbled into the alley. The door slammed shut behind him, and he was left shivering on the dirty ground, his feet bare. He didn’t pause to put on his clothes but instead ran as fast as he could toward the streets he knew. When he was far enough away, he stopped and dressed behind a dumpster. 

It was only then, as the adrenaline seeped out of him, that he realized he had never given Elliot his name. For some reason, that knowledge hurt more than the bruises on his arms or the headache pounding behind his temples. How would he know who to ask for when he got to jail? Billy’s father had been to the drunk tank on more than one occasion, using his one phone call to dial home. Elliot wouldn’t know whose name to give the operator, not that Billy even had a phone to answer. 

It never occurred to Billy that Elliot wouldn’t make it to the jail. Though he had seen many terrible things in his young life, he had yet to become the hardened man who would have scoffed at such hopefulness. In that moment, he was a child again, clutching his bed sheets and praying that the monster under his bed would stay there another night.

No one had told him that the monsters had long since come out of the shadows, if they’d ever been hiding at all.

He tossed the dirty bed sheet in the dumpster and started off in the direction of his usual haunts. He would wait until morning, then he’d go find Elliot. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have any money on him to bail him out. He’d find a way. Until then, he wandered the streets, muscles sore and heart heavy as a ball of lead in his chest. He watched the sun rise with a creeping sense of dread and started to make his way back toward the gallery.


  • Sebastian Murdoch is a writer currently living in Jackson, Mississippi. They have an MFA in Fiction from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their work can be found in The Johannesburg Review of Books, Crow and Cross Keys, and Write or Die Tribe. They are represented by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in New York City.

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